The Rev. Paul Abels (1937-1992) was the first openly gay minister with a congregation in a major Christian denomination in America (from New York Times obituary on 3/14/92). Paul was the pastor of the Washington Square United Methodist Church in New York City from 1973 to 1984. This congregation in Greenwich Village was locally known as the Peace Church for its opposition to the Vietnam War and for its large gay and lesbian membership.
Paul was born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, on August 4, 1937, to Carrie Mae (Atkins) and James Albert Abels. He was educated in the public schools of Yellow Springs and Cedarville, Ohio (where during high school he had a column in the town's weekly newspaper) and enter the college of liberal arts at Drew in 1955. Paul earned a B.A. degree from Drew University in 1959 and a M. Div. in 1963. He was ordained an Elder in the Northern New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1963. Paul also earned a Master of Sacred Music degree from United Theological Seminary in 1965. During this period he served churches as minister of music in Towaco and Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, and as pastor in West New York, New Jersey.
Paul worked for the National Council of Churches from 1964 to 1969 as program assistant in youth ministry and later as Director for the Arts. He compiled and edited Anthology of Religious Folk Music and New Hymns for a New Day . The latter publication, used widely as a worship resource, led him to the forefront of advocates of new music in the church and in this capacity he led workshops and lectured at colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. Paul's arrangements of folk hymns have been widely reprinted in church music collections throughout the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and Sweden.
In 1969 he left the NCC to become a freelance performing arts manager. Among his activities were Provo Muse, the first nonprofit performing arts management company in the U.S., director of church music for Galaxy Music Corporation, and director of the Westbeth Artists Housing Community.
In 1973 Paul was appointed pastor of Washington Square United Methodist Church. While at Washington Square, he initiated a $1.5 million restoration campaign, planned the church's 125th anniversary, and worked with the many community groups housed in the building, including the Harvey Milk School, a parent-run day care center, and many lesbian/gay support and social groups.
On Sunday, November 27, 1977, Abels was featured in a New York Times article entitled "Minister Sponsors Homosexual Rituals." The article told about four "covenant services" that Paul had performed in recent months. And in the article Paul identifies himself as a "homosexual."
Controversy arose throughout the denomination with many critics calling for his removal. Bishop Ralph Ward asked Paul to take a leave of absence. Paul refused and his appointment was upheld by vote of the New York Annual Conference. The bishop then appealed to the Judicial Council, highest court in United Methodism, which ruled in 1979 that Abels was in "good standing" and in "effective relation" and could remain as pastor at Washington Square.
Paul took early retirement from the pastorate in June, 1984, following the vote of the 1984 General Conference of the United Methodist Church to bar the ordination and appointment of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals."
He and his partner, Thom Hunt, moved to Rensselaerville, New York where they restored the historic Catalpa House and opened it as a bed and breakfast. From 1984 to 1989, Paul was Executive Director of Equinox Services Agency in Albany. After leaving Equinox, he devoted his time to innkeeping, writing and consulting. He died on March 12, 1992, from complications related to AIDS.
Biography Date: November, 2002
United Methodist Church | Abels, Paul | Church Trials | Marriage Equality | New York | New York City | Ordination/clergy
“In the winter of 1979 I went to New York City (I was at Boston University School of Theology) to do some research in the Union Theological Seminary library. A classmate--who had much more experience in New York City than I did--offered to come with me. While I spent the day in the library, he explored the city and checked out a place he thought we could spend the night. I met up with him when the library closed and we rode the subway to the Village. After a short walk we were standing in front of our overnight accommodations and I exclaimed: "Do you know what this is?" It was Washington Square UMC where the well-known openly gay Paul Abels was pastor.
Paul was away that weekend but his housemate opened the spare bedroom to us to stay overnight. The Washington Square "parsonage" was the top two floors of the building just east of the church--an enormous flat by Manhattan standards. Paul's innate grace and hospitality led him to open his home to countless gay visitors to New York City. I met Paul on a subsequent visit and enjoyed his Continental hospitality and the comfort of his home numerous times over the next few years.
Paul became a dear friend, confidant and mentor as I agonized over how to fulfill my call to ministry as a gay man. Paul encouraged me to do and say whatever needed to get ordained, citing Catholic moral theology indicating that a "lie" could be justified on the path to a higher truth and good. Michael Collins was his foil who counseled me that I likely couldn't live with myself if I lied about who I was.
I was surprised initially that Paul eschewed direct involvement in Affirmation and the political struggles over LGBT concerns in the United Methodist Church. I came to understand that he saw those as a distraction from living a life of integrity and faith--which he embodied. He seemed to enjoy the role of elder stateman and mentor who encouraged me and others to keep our eyes on what God was calling us to do and be. When it became clear after the 1984 General Conference that the homophobic oppression was not abating in the United Methodist Church, Paul exited that institution to seek other ways to be in ministry rather than be hounded and distracted by antigay forces.
While I stayed in touch with Paul and Thom when they moved to Rensselaerville to open the bed & breakfast, I did not get there to visit before his illness and death. I think of Paul fondly whenever I sing or hear the Sydney Carter song, "Lord of the Dance." Paul claimed that as part of the music and worship work he did for the National Council of Churches, he introduced this song from the U.K. to the U.S.”
– as remembered by Mark Bowman on May 14, 2012
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